The remains of a magical childhood

The secrets of Ted Hughes's childhood have been revealed as Mytholmroyd marks the 10th anniversary of the death of its most famous son. Michael Hickling reports.

Ted Hughes wrote, "My first six years shaped everything", and he was fond of re-visiting the scenes of his vivid escapades as a child in the Calder Valley, west of Halifax. These early adventures coloured his imaginative life, they formed the bedrock of experience which he dug out and polished into the gems that were his poems.

The outcome of a trip in later life back to his old stamping ground was a book, accompanied by evocative Fay Godwin photographs, called The Remains of Elmet. The title refers to a legend that says this rugged and once lawless territory was the last stronghold of the ancient Elmet kingdom of the Celts.

Many of these poems draw on boyhood exploits in the hills that rise steeply from front doorstep of the house where Ted Hughes was born. "A wall of rock and steep woods half way up the sky," is how he described it, and his guide and protector in these semi-wild and often nocturnal adventures was his elder brother, Gerald.

It was Gerald who instructed little Ted in the mysteries of smoking out weasels, shooting a stoat, pitching a tent, catching a loach, or sending out tom-tom messages across the valley like Geronimo.

Ted grew up to become Poet Laureate. Gerald, a lad who had an instinctive grasp of the lore of the countryside, became a gamekeeper in Devon. Gerald swapped careers to become a Nottingham policeman until a poster caught his eye. It depicted an alluring Australian beach and he promptly took an assisted 10 passage Down Under to work in aviation, and that's where he has stayed.

Ted and Gerald hoped one day that they could both return to Yorkshire and farm together. Neither man relinquished his attachment to the upper Calder valley, where they had roamed free as air in the 1930s. It was their lost paradise.

Gerald, 10 years the senior, has survived Ted, who died in October 1998, aged 68. Gerald lives in Melbourne but even at this distance – and at the age of 88 – he can still see in his mind's eye those childhood expeditions in the hills.

Gerald's knack of bringing the distant past into sharp focus is something Donald Crossley prompted. Donald has conducted a long correspondence with Gerald, encouraging him to draw sketch maps and recall the tiniest detail of boyhood incidents of 70 years ago.

And since this stuff formed the springboard for Ted Hughes's imagination, it gives first-hand insights into how the poems in The Remains of Elmet came about.

At his home, Donald pulls out some of the letters that comprise his long-distance research project and explains why Gerald warmed to it. "Gerald once told me, 'I tried to live that dream in the heart of the Calder valley elsewhere – and neither of us ever did'."

Donald Crossley was born at number 9, Aspinall Street, in Mytholmroyd. His bedroom window overlooked the front of number 1, the home of the three Hughes children, Gerald, Olwyn and Teddy. When he grew up, Donald moved away from his birthplace, but not as far as the others in the gang. He has spent his life 10 minutes' walk away, across the Rochdale canal.

The picture painted by Ted Hughes, of Mytholmroyd, in his Elmet book is monochrome – it's a stark, gritty, smoky place. Today, it's different. Those skeletal stone farmsteads perched above the town, which spoke of hard lives worn to the bone, have been fleshed-out by prosperous incomers. Life is not so hard. Even the tortuous farm tracks, which rise steeply to some rather bijou front doors, are nothing like as treacherous these days, now that the winters are gentler.

The hills remain just as they were – gloriously wild. But on them you are as likely to encounter a jogger from the cast of Emmerdale as you are a shepherd. The town, once introverted and seemingly stuck in its Pennine pass, now looks outward as it attracts commuters working in Manchester or Leeds.

Donald, equipped with a much-thumbed and annotated copy of The Remains of Elmet tucked under his arm, strolls back over the Rochdale canal bridge to survey today's sunlit scene.

Aspinall Street's stone houses were built to last. Ted's house has a black plaque on the wall and has recently been done up and re-opened as a writer's retreat.

This is a compact neighbourhood whose history Donald has at his fingertips. Nothing remains of the landmarks that gave it meaning in the 1930s – the foundry, the textile mill and the chapel. Back then, Aspinall Street's front doors did not open on to an area that is as neat and trim as they do now. "This square here in the middle was muck, nothing but muck," notes Donald, with relish. He has another book to back him up on this fact. It was sent to him by Poet Laureate Ted who wrote this inscription: "When thee and me played in the muck

Little we knew of our marvellous luck."

Donald's father worked as a loom tuner, or "tackler". Ted's father, Billy, was a star amateur footballer who had professional trials in Sheffield and Manchester. Billy decided he was better off staying as a joiner working for a local firm, F&H Sutcliffe.

Numerous Hughes relations lived close by. All the children went to the local school a short walk away. Down the hill and facing the main street, Burnley Road Primary is still going strong. Donald's closest pals here were Teddy Hughes, Derek Robertshaw and Brian Seymour. The three peer out of a class photo and pose awkwardly for the class pageant.

We set off from Aspinall Street. "There are 27 poems within a stone's throw of here," says Donald, indicating towards an anonymous housing block facing the street. It replaced the Primitive Methodists' chapel, featured in the poem, Mount Zion.

Donald's copy of The Remains of Elmet is part guidebook, part inspiration. Reading the text excites him and he is seized with the urge to declaim from it at key points.

Across the road, we stop at a bridge leading over the canal. "Ted ended up fishing with Prince Charles and the Queen Mother. But he started here, on Midgeley Road bridge, known to everyone as Navvie Bridge."

The fishing tackle of choice for lads in those days was a mesh from mum's kitchen curtains and a two-pound jam jar. The bridge overlooks the site of a derelict foundry – inspiration for the poem,

Under the World's Wild Rims. The ruin had 500 glass skylights, and children on their way to school took it as their duty to smash as many as they could by chucking stones.

Down by the water's edge, ducks frolic and a mother walks her child along the sunny towpath. Donald thumbs open his book to The Canal's Drowning Black poem and is so galvanised by it, he stamps his foot for emphasis as he reads aloud.

"Listen to Ted's last line here: 'Back into this Paradise and mine'. Shakespeare couldn't write better than that."

He delights in showing how the words precisely match what's in front of us. "In the poem, The Long Tunnel Ceiling, Ted conjures up the reflections and the loach in the canal. Can you see the light dancing on the wall here? It hasn't changed at all."

We leave the town behind to climb a steep track through shadowed glades and discover that the magic world where the Hughes boys once lit fires, trapped, and shot, is still intact.

Donald, now 77, presses on upwards with a brisk step. We stop to examine where the brothers once camped in their Bukta bell tent and Ted shot a rat with Gerald's rifle. "Ted was a great shot, almost Olympic standard, as well as being a great fisherman."

Was he competitive? "No, he really did his own thing. Fished purely

for enjoyment."

The funny thing is that Donald had never really been a poetry man. He followed his father into the textile industry and worked for 43 years as an engineer at the Caldene Clothing Company, a three-minute bike ride from his home. He lost touch with Ted for a long time and only became reunited in 1985. After that, he and his wife used to stay at Ted's property in Devon.

"I told him, 'I've never been a reader, I like history and geography'. But I loved to be with Teddy, he had that presence. You realised you were with an extraordinary chap. And he was very generous."

Six months after Ted died, something strange happened to the non-literary Donald. "I got hold of a copy of The Remains of Elmet and began to study it. As soon as I picked it up it became for me the gospel according to Hughes."

We reach the top, traverse a little and on the descent pass Hill House where "Old McKinley" used to give Ted and Gerald a shilling, in 12 old pennies, for catching a rabbit.

"The boys got up at five in the morning and would lie up here and listen to the looms in the valley starting up. Mytholmroyd had big sidings for sorting coal and goods bound for Lancashire, and the wheels slipping on the rails was the first thing you heard in your attic bedroom."

Further down we come to "the wood that hangs from the sky". Just inside its canopy, Donald explores the spot where the incident for the poem, The Weasels We Smoked Out of The Bank, happened. This was the happy hunting ground of Geronimo, where the boys hid their Red Indian tom-toms after pounding out messages over the valley.

They had to leave it all behind when their father, Billy, took a newsagent's shop in Mexborough, in South Yorkshire. In later life, Billy returned. He ran a tobacconist's in Hebden Bridge and lived at Heptonstall. Ted came to visit with his first wife, the poet Sylvia Plath, who described it as "wild and lonely and a perfect place to work".

After her death, Ted buried her in the graveyard at Heptonstall. They had met at Cambridge and married in 1956. She gassed herself in her London flat in 1963, aged 30. Her husband became the man many Plath admirers loved to hate, targeting his name on her gravestone.

He never responded directly, but in 1998 explored the complex relationship with his first wife in his last poetic work, Birthday Letters. That book and the biographical film, Sylvia, in 2003, where Daniel Craig played Ted, seems to have calmed down the militants of the anti-Hughes brigade.

Next week is the 10th anniversary of his death and there had been an ambition in Mytholmroyd that it could be marked at a brand new 2.4m Ted Hughes Centre at the old railway station. But the hoped-for funding for the project was withdrawn. The centre could have put the place on the map.

A local man, Alan Brook, who used to be a railway booking and parcels clerk, is the former chairman of Royd Regeneration. "In the Sixties, I can remember every shop was a busy place," he says. "We've seen a steady decline – speeded up by the banks pulling out. Our flagship was to be the Ted Hughes Centre. We had English Heritage and the Railway Heritage Trust behind us.

"But never-say-die. It will happen – although not in that building. It's now riddled with dry rot and shakes when a train goes by."

Alan remains enthusiastic about the Hughes connection – for its economic potential, rather than for any literary enthusiasm. "I wasn't a fan of Ted Hughes, but he's growing on me."

That seems a common view. This local boy is not to most people's taste. At first glance, it seems odd that they don't bang the drum for a man who climbed to such international eminence from such an ordinary background and was so passionate about their town.

The nature of his work maybe has something to do with it. Hughes

is not very quotable, there's not much humour, and the poems are harder to come to grips with than those of someone like Philip Larkin whose rhythms sound more conversational. It's true the theatre at the local Calder High School has been named after him. But the coolness may be due to a sense that the Ted Hughes story has already been annexed by the literary establishment and Sylvia Plath fanatics. It doesn't

really connect with ordinary people in Mytholmroyd.

Then there's the matter of his women. Ted, poetic, saturnine and sexy,

had quite a few. There's also his other marriage after Plath which also ended with a suicide. People aren't judgmental about all this, but they don't much like it.

The torch has been passed to the Elmet Trust, formed by a small group of people keen to promote the poet's life and works and whose first big effort comes to fruition next Wednesday. Andrew Motion, the current Poet Laureate, opens the Ted Hughes Festival which the trust have worked long to organise.

The trust's patron is the man who may be Yorkshire's next Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage. Its chairwoman is Sheila McAnulty, who was smitten by Ted Hughes's poems as a girl and who believes that his name can be an agent of change in the town.

"I'm from Mytholmroyd and I still visit regularly because my mum is still here," she says. "When I was 18, I left to go to university. I couldn't wait to get away, it was a very dark and dingy place. But when I had my own family, I fell back in love with the place. The buildings had all been cleaned up and the place became so much lighter."

She hopes that, in partnership with Calder High School, a Ted Hughes exhibition centre can be established in their foyer. Carol, Hughes's widow, is very supportive.

Donald Crossley does not regret that the more ambitious scheme had to be abandoned. "When we lost the funding, we were told we had to get the Ted Hughes name known first," he says.

"It's quite true. Where are all the hundreds of people coming from to visit a Ted Hughes Centre? There's more go to Heptonstall to the Plath grave.

"He's not a Betjeman, and above a scattering, I can't say they like his work round here. Some have no time for him at all. That may be to do with his romantic entanglements. What I'm trying to do is get his name out to the public."

Donald Crossley will be leading some Ted Hughes walks as part of the festival, October 22-28. Ticket hotline: 07592 577482.